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Palestinian director Hany Abu Assad’s controversial Oscar nominated feature Omar merges genres and uses flawed characters to dynamically illustrate the complex political realities between Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Born October 11th, 1961, in Nazareth, Israel, Abu-Assad was first nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2006 for his feature Paradise Now, about two Palestinian men preparing for a suicide attack in Israel. His 2013 film Omar was selected as the Palestinian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards, and then the 86th Academy Awards nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
First seen locally as part of the 51st New York Film Festival, Omar screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Jury Prize and then was shown at lat year’s Toronto International Film Festival. It also won Best Feature Film at the 2013 Asian Pacific Screen Awards.
The 45 year-old director came to the idea of the film in one night, writing its story structure in four hours and completing the script in four days. After a year of financing — which brought in an American based Palestinian owned production company -- filming began near the end of 2012 and was shot mainly in Nazareth, Nablus and the Far’a refugee camp.
The film focuses on Palestinian baker Omar (Adam Bakri) who routinely scales the wall that separates Israel from the West Bank to meet up with girlfriend Nadja (Leem Lubany). He also styles himself a freedom fighter — or a terrorist depending on the interpretation — ready to attack the Israeli army with childhood friends Tarek (Eyad Hourani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat). After the killing of an Israeli soldier, he’s arrested, cajoled into admitting some guilt by association, and forced work as an informant.
Not only he is faced with having to betray his cause or play his Israeli handler (Waleed F. Zuaiter) and face 90 years in jail and risk the safety of his family. He’s forced to question who he can trust on either side. In either case the likely conclusion is a tragedy of one kind or another not unlike what is happening in the region daily.
This Q&A was garnered from a roundtable held in New York hotel this February.
Q: This is a different story from your other films — what prompted that?
HA: One day I was about to shoot The Courier, a film I made here, and felt like it’s not going to be a good movie. I wanted to escape, well not escape, but survive the project. I remember waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning sweating in a panic and I was thinking, “Oh my God, I need a project I can rely on after The Courier. Think!” And I came up with this movie in four hours. The whole structure was thought up from 8 o’clock to where I wrote the last scene.
Q: This film has a coming-of-age aspect to it.
HA: It’s so funny, almost everything in the movie was from those four hours. It had to be a love story, but the characters had to be young: otherwise it wouldn’t be believable or pathetic. It has to be a coming-of-age story or you don’t believe why they’re like this. What happens to me in panic is like when a mother sees her daughter under a car and is suddenly stronger than the car. Panic will let you think very sharply, and all your knowledge will be very well used.
Q: Is this a genre-film-slash-suspense story?
HA: I love thrillers and really wanted to use that genre in a different way to tell a love story. I was interested in three different traditions. For Americans, the thriller contains the meat of the story. The French are more interested in the inner conflict of the character and concentrate on the inner tension through closeups and wide shots but not the tension in the story.
The thrillers of the Egyptians are different from Western thrillers, because whether it’s French or American, to keep the tension high the characters are almost inhuman. They don’t go to the bathroom because it’s a waste of time. They don’t eat or tell jokes.
However, the Egyptians succeeded in making thrillers with human characters. They’re funny; they tell jokes; but it’s still tense. That felt like what would happen if I took the meat of an American thriller like No Way Out or The Firm, the mystique of French thrillers like Le Samourai and the humanity of an Egyptian thriller like There Is a Stranger in Our House and come up with something original. This was my experiment in the thriller genre. In answer to your question yes, it is a combination of a coming-of-age story with a genre thriller.
Q: You strike a good political balance with Omar.
HA: I love the kind of movies that challenge my thoughts of right and wrong. I love movies that challenge my moral judgement or any judgement, political or otherwise. And consciously I do movies that resemble what I like.
Q: You had complete creative control. What did you achieve here that you didn’t in the past?
HA: In everything there is a limitation and a price. Indeed I had my artistic freedom, but I had a lot of limitations of resources. You pay a price for everything. As a filmmaker you always want to explore new ventures. I have the luxury of choosing the light and lenses; I want to meet mainstream expectations, or do a film I’m happy with 100% and fuck luxury.
Q: The casting director did a great job.
HA: It’s true, I have to give her credit. She was the only casting director available, so we didn’t have a choice. But she’s the best. She worked with other good filmmakers and she had a good record. You know how it works.
Casting directors bring you tons of options and you see their pictures and videos. And from the thousands you pick hundreds that you actually meet. And from the hundred you bring back 20 for another test, and from 20 you reduce them to five. It’s a process of testing, testing all the time. Because I use an invisible style, the style of the movie doesn’t draw attention to itself. It says to the audience: here’s your character; live with him or her.
The actor becomes the most important element in the movie because his emotions and believability lets you live with him or not. That’s why during casting I’m very careful and bring an actor back many times, testing him again and again until I choose. Then I rehearse a lot because that’s when I have the luxury to change things without the pressure of shooting. When I’m shooting it’s just pushing them in a direction I want, but also letting them go because we did a very careful process of casting and rehearsal.
Q: There seems to be a general renaissance of Middle Eastern cinema…
HA: I hope so. This is up to you to decide. This gives me a good feeling. The Middle East deserves attention since it’s been neglected, not because there’s no talent but because it was a truly political decision to neglect them. When the mainstream neglects them, this multiplies the effect.
Q: Have Palestinians seen this film?
HA: Yes, and most of the reactions were excellent there. I feel it succeeded because I don’t want to make a film just for sophisticated audiences or festivals like Cannes. I really want to do a movie for the people and for my mother to understand and enjoy.
For sure there will be people who don’t like the movie and that’s all right. How many times have I admired directors who they have done a movie I didn’t like? It’s nothing personal; it’s your right not to like a movie.
Q: What did your mother say?
HA: She loved it more than Paradise Now. She thought it was a compelling story.
Q: What was the reaction in Israel?
HA: It was mixed, though I have to say it was mostly positive and I was really surprised. I was thinking there would be more hostile reactions. The hostile reactions were based on political ideals, not the quality of the movie. It doesn’t matter what I think politically. Take The Godfather. Politically [the Godfather character] is very wrong, but it doesn’t matter, you appreciate the film.
After seeing the movie, crime is still crime, but you appreciate that it challenges your ideas. You appreciate it so much because you felt sympathy for someone you would never feel sympathy for in reality. I tell everybody: we can discuss politics, but movies are about emotional involvement with characters you can’t connect with in reality. The reactions from the Israelis was mostly good. Some dismiss it for political reasons.
Q: What do you think of the new peace proposals?
HA: I am optimistic. Every conflict will end. Endless conflict does't exist. Whether it’s tomorrow or after a year I can’t judge, but I am optimistic we are on our way to solve this problem.
Q: Have you seen the Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing?
HA: I loved it. It was an opportunity for me was to [learn] about mass murder and killing for joy — they’re real, not actors. When do we have the opportunity to talk to mass murderers? It doesn’t exist. This movie gave me the opportunity to hear them. The act of killing is still killing but to see them as a human being is amazing.
Q: Are you excited about your upcoming award adventures in LA?
HA: It’s funny, because I had this experience before and you live with the attention for months and weeks. Every day the attention increases and increases. The first time it was fun and because it’s the first time, the disappointment was really heavy because you hear someone else’s name and you are disappointed whether you like it or not. Because I know the taste of disappointment I’m like, “Oh no I have to go through this again!”
I’m traumatized specially because we have a really tough competition. All the films I’ve seen are really good, I would vote for all of them. There’s not one where I said, “No I can not choose this movie.” It’s a very tough year. This is why I feel like I have to go through this. The Oscar [competition] is so tense for everybody. Your legs bend because of the tension. It’s a show you have to go through this.
Q: Do you want to do a TV series given the success of such shows as Homeland?
HA: I am thinking about it seriously. I can’t tell you now, but I am working on something.
Doing press tour rounds for their upcoming film Need for Speed, star Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) and Scott Waugn stopped by Seattle to sit down and talk about what it took to bring the popular EA Sports video game to the big screen in a big way. They touched on subjects from stunt driving know-how to the advantages of practical effects over CGI, their first cars, driving recklessly and how they hope their film won't be seen in the same vein as the massively popular Fast and Furious franchise. Although I've seen the film, my words are still under lock and key but rest assured, it's certainly the brand of light-hearted car romp one would expected from a movie called Need for Speed.
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I've added another of my favorite films from Sundance, The Guest, to this delightful series of Q&As that'll give you a peek into the process of how these great works are pieced together as well as what you can expect when these films eventually hit theaters. If you appreciated Adam Wingard's early work (You're Next, V/H/S) be sure to slot The Guest high on your anticipated movies list, as it's easily his best yet and a snarky splatterfest thrill ride from start to finish. Listen to Wingard and his cast, including Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens, talk about writing the piece, inspiration from 80's movies and getting pierced by exploding shrapnel.
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In this final installment of talks around 2014's Sundance, we touch base with the creative brains and cinematic brawn behind Young Ones (full review here) - a dystopian future Western that pits mechs and humans against draughts and standoffs. A bit like slamming The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in the midst of Tatooine, Jake Paltrow's sophomoric effort is a fascinating and engaging experiment in genre that worked wonders for me. Joining him, stars Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Elle Fanning helped guide us through why they came to the movie, what it was like working under the heat of a South African sun and the use of modern day robotics in Young Ones.
Q: Talk about what inspired the film and what were some of the stylistic influences?
Jake Paltrow: There were two particular news articles. One was about moving the capital of Yemen due to a lack of water, in the next ten years. And another one was about the driest town in the world in Chile. There’s a story about all these people who stayed behind because of these odd personal reasons and needing water to be pumped in. And I’ve always been interested in robotics and I spent time in 2008 with Big Dog at Boston Dynamics. Anyway, I was very interested in trying to do a story with a robotic character that would work and explore its sentience, it had some sort of soul, or it would be a character, a character that would have some sort of sense itself. And those two things came together and it went from there.
Q: Talk about how you sort of fused some of the stylistic elements, the science fiction with the Western bounds?
JP: That sort of just happened. I don’t know if that was such a premeditated thing, it just came together. Giles, who photographed the movie, and I really didn’t look at very few things we talked about. We talked about Silent Night, the only one we ever talked about, the way it was lensed I think. We loved that movie, it looked so great. But we were always trying to do our thing beyond that.
Q: How did you select the instruments, the electronics vs. the harmonica?
Nathan Johnson: A lot of that was working with Jake, we would sit down and we talk out ideas, stylistic references. And we pulled out music boxes and harmoniums, and we were talking a lot about wind actually, and the idea of wind instruments and what it sounds like when wind blows over something, and just that point where it turns into a tone. So we thought that was kind of interesting. The idea of combining traditional orchestral instruments with these wind instruments and also these synthetic elements just piqued our interest and felt maybe part of the world this place was in.
Q: What did it feel like to live through this movie, the people who worked in it.
Michael Shannon: Well, it’s really disturbing to think about what might be heading our way. But at the same time, we are making a movie. Now, in NYC we’re much more afraid of water than not having water. So it’s all relative.
Q: Can you guys talk about what first attracted you to the role?
Elle Fanning: Well, I read the script a really long time ago. I was twelve when I first read it. And I met Jake for the first time and we went out to lunch. And I thought I was something that I’d never read before, and right when I read it, I thought ‘Oh my God, I have to do this’. I knew that for my character specifically, I’m really into details and all the little things and quirks of Mary or any character I do, and I knew with her I could put a lot of those in there. And after talking to Jake, he was so open to those. We spent so long on that hot pink nail polish color. We were picking it out, the right shade, “That’s too salmon, that’s too hot”, that was a big deal. And I love that, I like picking out the details, and I just love Jake and the movie so much. So that’s kind of, the nail polish drew me to it.
Kodi Smit-McPhee: I was also kind of really attracted by the nail polish. No, I was also with the project for a long time, it went through a lot but then it got through again. And I was in LA, just Skyping Jake, reading the script again, did my tape, sent it off, and next thing I was in South Africa melting.
Nicholas Hoult: The script was the most original thing I’d read for ages but also that Flem role was the most interesting, with all the dynamics he had with each other character from the film, and I was fascinated by him, it was really well written. That’s the reason I wanted to do each scene. And I had the same experience that Elle had with nail polish, but I had a fake tan. So I got to wear a lot of that.
MS: It’s kind of like what we were talking about earlier. It was relevant and it was a story that needed to be told. I don’t think a movie’s gonna fix a problem but beyond just reading something from a newspaper, if you put it in a movie, it may have more of an emotional resonance, it may inspire someone to do something. It did occur to me when I read it that that might be one result, yes.
Q: Why did you choose to use chapters versus acts? JP: We talked about that a lot, we talked about approach, acts or chapters. The third thing that really inspired the movie, besides those articles and interests in robotics, were the SE Hinton books that I revisited. I reread those books when I was writing, I hadn’t read them in such a long time and I loved them so much and I loved them again as a kid. And I loved the way a science fiction book version of those books could feel like. So I was really leaning towards that. And those books were always sort of short and I thought how could I make this movie feel like one of those short books. And so the chapters thing, I thought it was a way to keep the entertainment relevant, that you would know that you were moving into the next thing. You close this story, move into Flem’s chapter, you could get more energy back as an audience. I think to try and entertain, certainly the chapters had to do with books, but we do play with parts and acts at other points to. And the important thing at the end, in a way it is to sort of, the movie, even though the performance is sort of naturalistic, has this sort of storybook element to it, and I liked the idea of sort of ending it. I mean, I look at the movie and I feel like it’s a tragedy, and I like revisiting these characters and seeing them all as a little bit removed from the movie.
Q: The science fiction elements felt really organic when they came into the story. I thought it was a really bold choice to create classic western meets futuristic science fiction and I wonder were there things about it that you were worried wouldn’t work?
JP: Everything. The way we did the simulation, we had two puppeteers and that was one of those things, the movie, I’d prepped once before and it didn’t happen, and so we got down to South Africa we started doing it this way, but we never had a complete proof that this would work. We’d done it once before, in Spain, and it seemed like it would work perfect, so we kept moving that way. But we hadn’t really tested it, doing a whole movie, so we just kept going, thinking it would work. But sometimes it felt like every single thing just wouldn’t work. It was 115 degrees the first few days of shooting, it felt impossible to get through the day, literally just taking it one step at a time. We felt like we’d never get through the shots. Sequences like that were very worked out, so we knew we had to get that amount of shots to make the scene work, so we somehow adjust. I really credit Mike. But truly we felt like we couldn’t even finish it. It was a very difficult movie to make and we were so far away. I’d never been in a situation where you couldn’t shoot because the lights would go. And then the lights would go, and you’d be standing there saying ‘Well that’s it’. And they’d go and drive seven hours to Cape Town to get new lights and come through the next day. We didn’t have a schedule where we could get things picked up, certain people get dropped along the way. Thinking, what do we have, what do we have? Trying to fit everything together, and somehow we got lucky, or at least seemed to.
Q: What was the idea behind the plane in the film.
JP: That was just the idea that there was a world going on around the movie, this sort of supersonic passenger jet is back, the new Concord is back and they’re flying from LA to New York in 45 minutes or whatever it is, and there’s this whole world where in fact, you know our world has this sort of regressive nature to it, and the rest of the world is great. You know, a world where Google Glass, or the next, all those sort of things are happening, all those utopian urban things, people migrating from urban areas from rural areas, all that is going on, just not where these people live. So that was the idea, that there’s a big world out there.
Q: From a production standpoint, the robot you used, was that on loan from the military?
JP: No, it’s totally fake. The torso is made of fiberglass tubing.
Q: Did you try and get the actual robot?
JP: Oh yes, I tried. They were great, but there was no way to do it. They’re developing. Now they’re on to Cheetah, and all these things. I mean it was a fascinating experience to spend time with them to do this test, but in the end they’re not a movie tool. They have much bigger fish to fry.
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